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Essay: Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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In the novel Black Elk Speaks, written by John G. Neihardt, a member of a Lakota tribe named Black Elk gives an account of a vision he encountered as a young boy and explains how this vision shaped the rest of his life as he fought, grew, matured, and learned the true meaning for his life. Many religion scholars have used Black Elk’s encounter with the divine, in this case the Grandfathers, to further explore and study Native American religions. Through this, many scholars have been able to identify and define Black Elk’s grand vision and both a sacred myth and a sacred ritual through means of phenomenology and the use of different religion theories.

In the grand vision of Black Elk, the young Black Elk is approached by voices who tell him his Grandfathers are waiting for him. Black Elk suddenly falls ill when he sees the same men from earlier through the slit in the top of his parent’s teepee. He is then taken to his Grandfather on a cloud with these men. When Black Elk’s vision starts, he is greeting by a horse who tells Black Elk that he is about to learn the story of him and his people. The horse then makes a circle where twelve horses in each cardinal direction: north, east, south, and west. He is told that these horse will bring him to his Grandfathers. He and the horse arrive by cloud to a teepee with a rainbow as the door where the six Grandfathers await Black Elk’s arrival. Each Grandfather talks to Black Elk and gives him something. The first Grandfather gives Black Elk a wooden cup of water and a bow, these of which symbolize the power to live and destroy. The second Grandfather then hands Black Elk an herb, and he tells Black Elk that he will be the one to make his nation live again. The third Grandfather gives him a peace pipe which gives Black Elk the power to heal. The fourth Grandfather hand Black Elk a reds stick and explains to him that the stick symbolizes the center of Black Elk’s nation. The Grandfather then tells Black Elk that with this stick, he will save many. The fifth Grandfather tells Black Elk that he will have a special relationship with birds. Finally, the sixth Grandfather then gives Black Elk his own powers and explains to Black Elk that his nation is in great trouble. The Grandfathers then take Black Elk to a village and show him the four ascents of his people. At the first, the people are transformed into animals. At the second, the animals that were once people become very restless, and Black Elk notices that the leaves are falling of a tree. At the third ascent, Black Elk sees the broken hoop of his nation. The fourth was the worst with the people and their animals starving and dying. Black Elk then sees someone plant the sacred herb and watches in blossom and grow in the center of the nation’s hoop. Finally, four virgins enter carrying everything that the Grandfathers had given Black Elk. He then sees his nation alive and well again with the tree sheltering his village. Two men bring Black Elk the sacred herb, telling him to plant this for his people. Black Elk returns to his Grandfathers where they tell him to go back to his people and restore them by using the gifts they have given him. Black Elk then leaves his Grandfathers. He walks in tho his parents teepee and sees himself lying lifeless with his parents surrounding him. Black Elk then regains consciousness, ending his vision (Neihardt 13-29).

Many religion scholars have defined Black Elk’s grand vision a sacred myth. Throughout Livingston, religion scholars define myths as “important multileveled forms of symbolic communication” (Livingston 63). They are stories told throughout generations that serve as a community’s answer to the meaning of the universe and human life. To religion scholars, myths are very important, and can even shape the perception of self. They are used to explain why certain events have occurred, the problems with human race, and what humans must do in order to be “saved, liberated, or renewed” (Livingston 63).

In order to further interpret and decipher the true meaning and importance behind a certain myth, scholars use different theories such as the functionalist theory, the psychotherapeutic theory, and the phenomenological interpretation. Each theory is crucial to understanding different key aspects in a particular myth. The functionalist theory was adopted by Bronislaw Malinowski who stated that myths are “a statement of a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality, by which the present life, fates, and activities of mankind are determined.” Malinowski taught that myths could be best interpreted by learning and studying how that myth is a social function within that religion or culture. He deemed it appropriate and crucial for one to learn how a myth fit into the society of its people, such as when are where the myth is told, in order to fully understand its importance. In Black Elk Speaks, one could use the functionalism theory in understanding the dance rituals that came after Black Elk’s vision. Black Elk used dance rituals years after his vision in order to share what he had seen from the Grandfathers to his people. Certain dances were only done during specific times of the year as well as in the middle of the village where the symbolic tree of their nation was planted. By using dance rituals to express his vision, Black Elk was able to show his vision to his people thus making his stories and dances of his vision function in their society.

The psychotherapeutic theory was adopted by Carl Jung who saw importance in interpreting myths by concentrating of the three main parts of the human psyche: the personal unconscious, the conscious mind, and the collective unconscious. Jung put more emphasis on the collective unconscious which he defined as “the collective inheritance of materials that are psychically real prior to their personal appropriation” (Livingston 66). This simply means that the collective unconscious is the part of each person that holds their highest potentials of themselves for this life. Jung then uses archetypes to explain how the collective unconscious works. Archetypes are considered the building blocks for myths, according to Jung. It is through archetypes, that myths connect us to a person’s collective unconscious. This is important for helping scholars see how myths connect deeply within a person’s soul in order to understand the true meaning of that myth. In Black Elk Speaks, one could use the psychotherapeutic theory to classify Black Elk’s vision as a myth by studying how Black Elk’s collective unconscious was used during his vision. This is seen in how Black Elk’s vision showed Black Elk his potentials for his lifetime and for his nation. It is through his vision that the Grandfathers were able to explain to Black Elk what they had in store for his life. One of Black Elk’s potentials that was made clear to him in his vision was his destiny to restore his nation’s broken hoop. “My horse now faced the buckskins of the south, and a voice said: ‘They have given you the sacred stick and your nation’s hoop, and the yellow day; and in the center of the hoop you shall set the stick and make it grow into a shielding tree and bloom,’” (Neihardt 19). This shows that Black Elk was given his highest potentials, his “collective unconscious,” and used his vision to connect his collective unconscious to his present world in order to carry out his tasks that the Grandfathers had given him.

The phenomenological interpretation of myths was adopted by Mircea Eliade which defines myths are true accounts of sacred history. Eliade states that myths are history of the scared, which helps explain how reality actually came to be for that culture. Myths are also “the exemplary models of all natural and human life and activity” (Livingston 68). It is through the phenomenological interpretation of myths that scholars are able to answer the existential questions for what that cutler believes, such as the reason for life. In Black Elk Speaks, the phenomenological interpretation of Black Elk’s vision helps scholars to deem the vision a myth. This is because Black Elk was able to use his vision to explain to his people the hardships and trials that their nation would be enduring in their lifetime. Through Black Elk’s vision, Black Elk was given gifts, powers, and tasks by the Grandfathers who were able to explain Black Elk’s destiny. They told him that he would be the one to restore his nation’s broken hoop and bring life back to his people. This gave Black Elk a reason for his existence; thus, the existential question of the reason for Black Elk’s life was answered.

Many religion scholars have also classified Black Elk’s grand vision as a sacred ritual. A sacred ritual or a religious ritual. In Livingston, scholars have defined a religious ritual as “an agree-on and formalized pattern of ceremonial movements and verbal expressions carried out in a sacred context” (Livingston 75). Sacred rituals are very important in the practice of one’s religion because they are able to dramatize and strengthen a community’s belief and behavior systems in order to further legitimize those beliefs and actions (Livingston 76). There are three main types of scared ritual: life-cycle rites, life-crisis rites, and calendar or seasonal rituals. Life-cycle rites can also be defined as rites of passage. These are rituals performed only once in an individual’s lifetime that serve to transition them into a new stage of life. Life-crisis rites are done to “invoke divine assistance or ward off supernatural powers as a means of curing disease” (Livingston 84). These rituals can be done repeatedly over an individual’s lifetime and are used in the healing process. Lastly, calendar or seasonal rituals are rites that are associated with fixed points of the yearly calendar and/or connected to the changing of the seasons. These rituals are done repeatedly and can actually be done more than just once a year – some even done multiple times a day.

After classifying the different types of sacred rituals, one could deem Black Elk’s grand vision a life-cycle rite. This is because Black Elk’s vision consists of the three elements of a life-cycle rite: separation, transition, and reincorporation into the community. One can see the act of separation in how Black Elk was physically separated from his people when he was comatose in the teepee and in how he was separated from the natural world and brought to the spiritual world in his vision. The transition element of Black Elk’s vision can be seen in how he was transformed by the Grandfathers from a young boy into a medicine man who suddenly knew his calling and had the powers of the divine. Lastly, Black Elk was reincorporated into his community at the end of his vision when he was given the tools by the Grandfathers to heal his people and restore his nation. This can be considered reincorporation because Black Elk was given a specific role for his people by the Grandfathers in order to give him a purpose for his village. Therefore, scholars can identify Black Elk’s vision in Black Elk Speaks as a life-cycle rite/ritual because this particular vision only occurs once in his lifetime, and the vision follows the three elements of separation, transition, and reincorporation.

One could also see several different rituals that have originated from Black Elk’s grand vision. These include life-crisis rites and dance rituals. One can see that many life-crisis rituals originated from Black Elk’s vision in how Black Elk used his powers that he was given by the Grandfathers to heal people in his village. During these healing rituals, Black Elk would summon the Grandfathers in order to possess his powers for healing. “Everything was ready now, so I made low thunder on the drum, keeping time as I sent forth a voice. Four times I cried ‘Hey-a-a-hey,’ drumming as I cried to the Spirit of the World, and while I was doing this I could feel the power coming through me from my feet up, and I knew that I could help the sick little boy,” (Neihardt 124). This shows that Black Elk was able to invoke the Grandfathers’ powers in order to perform a healing ritual; therefore, it can be seen that life-crisis rites originated from Black Elk’s vision.

Certain dance rituals also originated from Black Elk’s grand vision. Dance rituals are not only very important in Black Elk’s Lakota tribe but in almost every Native American tribe and religion. In Native American Religions: An Introduction, Sam Gill states the importance of performance rituals by saying, “Native Americans rarely express their religious beliefs in terms of creeds, religious dogmas, or theologies, but rather in the performative forms of dance, ritual movement, and the use of religious objects. These actions engage the individual at every passage in the life cycle, and they engage the community in every significant activity that constitutes the community way of life,” (Gill 45). This shows the true importance of having dance rituals throughout a community of Native Americans. One could identify the particular dance rituals found in Black Elk Speaks as calendar rituals. This is because certain dance rituals are done annually depending on the phase of the moon. For example, the Sun Dance is a sacred ritual performed across many Native American tribes every summer while there is a full moon. Another example can be seen in the Native American Hopi tribe in how every spring they perform a rain dance as a way to propitiate to their divines, the kachinas, in order to have more luck in having rain for their village’s well-being. In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk uses his dance rituals such as the horse dance and the buffalo dance as a way of sharing his vision with his people. These dances are sacred for Black Elk’s tribe and bring much meaning to his vision and the empowerment for the Grandfathers that are within Black Elk himself. “After the horse dance was over, it seemed that I was above the ground and did not tough it when I walked. I felt very happy, for I could see that my people were all happier. Many crowded around me and said that they or their relatives who had been feeling sick were well again, and these gave me many gifts. Even the horses seemed to be healthier and happier after the dance. The fear that was on me so long was gone, and when thunder clouds appeared I was always glad to see them, for they came as relatives now to visit me. Everything seemed good and beautiful now, and kind,” (Neihardt 109). This shows that dance rituals of Black Elk’s grand vision were very significant not only for Black Elk but his people as well. It is from his vision that Black Elk was able to perform these dances; therefore, one can say that certain dance rituals originated from Black Elk’s vision.

In conclusion, Black Elk’s grand childhood vision that was explained in the novel Black Elk Speaks was and is still seen by religion scholars as very insightful experience and a threshold for studying and understanding the world of Native American religions deeper. It is through this account of Black Elk’s vision that scholars were able to identify this particular as a sacred myth through the three main theories of myth interpretation and as a sacred ritual which also became the birthplace for many other rituals in Black Elk’s Lakota tribe.

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